Toronto, Canada – The Yankees and Rangers are built on to-bottom, but they will be challenged by facing some lockdown round matchup.
Season series: 4-3 Tigers
Pitching: The Tigers have Justin Verlander, the best starting pitcher in the playoffs. The Yankees have CC Sabathia, a seasoned veteran who has never been shy of the big stage. It's hard to imagine Verlander losing twice in this series, but that scenario may not even occur, as the Yankees will send Sabathia to the hill in Game 4, which would allow them to escape facing Verlander twice if they can wrap up the series.
A positive note for the Yankees is that Verlander was unable to beat them over two starts this season, had a 4.50 ERA, and among teams that he faced at least twice, the Yankees had the highest batting average against him at .250. However, over two starts, Sabathia had a 4.15 ERA against the Tigers and they hit .320 off him.
Detroit is going with a four-man rotation in the LDS, and will likely have Rick Porcello matched up against Sabathia for what could be a pivotal Game 4. Clearly, the Tigers have plenty of trust in Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, who are without question, a stronger tandem than the Yankees' Game 2 and 3 starters, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. Fister has dominated since Detroit acquired him (8-1, 1.79 ERA, 0.83 WHIP), but seven of his past eight starts came against sub .500 teams. Nova, on the other hand, hasn't lost since June 3, while lowering his ERA from 4.50 to 3.70 during that stretch. He's been the recipient of the second highest run support average in the majors, but the rookie has to be brimming with confidence heading into the playoffs.
Despite his wild inconsistencies, the Yankees may have been better off going with A.J. Burnett for Game 3 over Garcia. Burnett threw solid against the Tigers over two starts this season, holding them to a .190 batting average and 3.75 ERA, and has been throwing better of late, striking out 36 batters over 29.1 September innings and has much better stuff than Garcia, for what it's worth. Either way, Yankees' manager Joe Girardi didn't have great options, but this one could come back to hurt them. Yankees' pitchers struck out an AL- leading 1,222 batters.
Across the board, the Yankees have had the better bullpen this season, despite Jose Valverde finishing the season 49-for-49 in save opportunities. The seventh-eighth-ninth inning combo of David Robertson, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera is as strong as it gets.
Offense: New York, who was second in the majors with 867 runs scored, scored 80 more runs than the Tigers, who had the fourth most. The Yankees also hit a major league-leading 222 home runs -- 53 more than the Tigers -- and are without question the bigger threat offensively. Derek Jeter has had the most success against Verlander, a career .360 hitter against him, while Miguel Cabrera has absolutely owned Sabathia, batting .563 (9-for-16) with two home runs, 11 RBI and an OPS of 1.591.
Wounded or not, Alex Rodriguez demands respect, but luckily for the Yankees, his production will only be a bonus as the offense in New York now goes through Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira. Yankees' hitters will make Detroit work as well as Granderson led the majors in pitches-per-plate appearance, and Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher and Teixeira also round out the top-20. Victor Martinez is very dangerous after Cabrera in the Tigers' lineup and will likely have plenty of opportunities to deliver, as the Yankees aren't going to let Cabrera beat them if they don't have to. One glaring difference that could prove to be an X-factor: the Yankees stole 147 bases, the fourth best mark in the majors, while the Tigers swiped 47, the lowest total.
Who wins: Better starting pitching is what wins in the playoffs, and the Tigers' rotation gets the nod over the Yankees in this series. But this time it won't matter, as the Yankees are too strong in other areas, namely their offense and bullpen, and won't have to worry about seeing Verlander twice.
Yankees in four.
Season series: 5-4 Rangers
Pitching: The Rays have a definite advantage in the starting pitching department, but they are heading into the unknown for Game 1. Rookie Matt Moore, who cruised through the minor leagues this season, will get the ball, after one career major league start, against Rangers ace CJ Wilson. Moore struckout 11 Yankees in his only start, has 15 strikeouts over 9 plus innings of work and can shut down even a strong Texas squad -- and strong it is. Wilson, meanwhile, has morphed into one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game and has absolutely dominated Tampa this season. And he did so during back- to-back outings earlier this September. Over three starts and 21.2 innings, Wilson went 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA, while striking out 24 and holding the Rays to a .147 average. It's the lowest opponents' batting average Wilson has against any team this year.
Tampa will then turn in game 2 to James Shields, who has stifled the Rangers holding them to a .140 average, while sporting a 0.53 ERA over two starts. David Price, who will presumably start Game 3, has combined with Shields, to hold Josh Hamilton to a .137 career average (4-for-29). The Rangers will counter Game 2 with Derek Holland, who shouldn't be overlooked, as he's won 10 of his past 11 decisions. If Colby Lewis doesn't start Game 3 for Texas, then the Rangers will begin the series by starting three consecutive lefties and go with Matt Harrison. Another impressive Rays rookie, Jeremy Hellickson, who had a 2.95 ERA over 189 innings, would pitch Game 4.
The Rays held their opponents to the lowest batting average (.234) in the AL and had the second-best team ERA at 3.58. Rays and Rangers pitchers had the lowest opponents' on-base percentage against in the AL.
Texas put together a very strong bullpen for a playoff-run, and it could turn into a big weapon for them.
Offense: The Rangers have been one of the best offensive teams in the majors this season, finishing the year with the second highest SLG% (.460) and OPS (.800). And they mashed lefties too, finishing with a .282 batting average, good for tops in the game. Only the Yankees hit more homers than the 210 the Rangers hit. The Rangers have five players who hit at least 25 home runs -- Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli -- and they run a lot too. But so does Tampa. The Rays stole more bases than anyone in the AL, but don't have nearly the same power as Texas.
As witnessed on the final day of the regular season, Evan Longoria is the Rays' man. He's batting .562 (9-for-16) with 2 home runs, seven RBI and seven extra-base hits against Holland and Harrison lifetime.
Who wins: The Rays have the better pitching, Texas the better offense. Tampa will have to rely on strong pitching, timely hits and smart base-running to beat the Rangers, as it won't be able to outslug them. For the Rangers, they must capitalize against Moore in Game 1 because they are outmatched for the rest of the series. If Moore can steal Game 1, the Rays would then be able to throw Shields and Price in three of the next four games. And even if they lose, Games 2 and 3 certainly favor them.
Like it was last season, this is the hardest LDS to call -- it can really go either way. Stopping the Rangers lineup seems like an improbable task, but if anyone in the AL can do it, it's Tampa.
Rays in five.